Sunday, January 5, 2020

Best books I read in 2019 and 2018

 will cheat a bit here. I did not read as many books as I would have liked in 2019, so I will include 2018 in this list. Since I do not have any compulsions to do a "Top-10" kind of a list, here are all the books I read and found interesting, notable, or memorable.

Nuclear energy has for the past several decades struggled for acceptance as a viable and safe source of safe power, despite evidence to the contrary. Its cause was not helped by the Three-Mile Island reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, or the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011. But the accident that people most remember, and the one that was as symbolically representative of the meltdown of the Soviet Union as of the actual meltdown of reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukrained in 1986 is captured in this highly engaging read -Midnight at Chernobyl. It is a vivid account of the events that led to the fateful night, to the immediate aftermath and frantic efforts by the crew to contain the damage, to the initial disbelief in the corridors of power, to the belated realization and rescue efforts. The author covers the nuclear physics part of it early on, in easy to understand terms. Even though the death-toll from the accident was not catastrophic, which led some to conclude that the accident itself was not, it is the aftermath of the meltdown that makes for the most absorbing reading. Much to the dismay of proponents of nuclear fuel as a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels, this book makes it difficult to enthusiastically advocate nuclear energy.

Krishna Yogeshwara - Review

Krishna Yogeshvara - The Dice of Kutil Dharma (Book 2 of the Lord Krishna Trilogy)

Amazon India

Agendas and subversion; free will and agency – a contemporaneous and timeless tale, retold

he second book in Sanjay Dixit's Lord Krishna trilogy, 'Krishna Yogeshvara', takes the reader from Rukmini's abduction to the start of the war in Kurukshetra and Arjuna's laying down of arms in the middle of the battlefield. We see and hear Krishna's journey from Mathura to Dwarka from Uddhav's eyes and words. This journey is both geographical and metaphorical. The metaphorical is Krishna's evolution from a cowherd (gopeshvara) in Mathura and Vrindavan to a yogi (yogeshvara) in Dwarka through his education at the hands of guru Sandipani along with Sudama and others.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Lessons from Mahabharata: Black, White, and Coloured Too

he Mahabharata has lived for thousands of years for the reason that it serves as that vast ocean human emotions in which everyone can pour their own understanding and find acceptance without judgment.

There is an innate human desire to see and interpret things in a monochromatic palette of black-and-white. One could argue that stereotyping is an "energy-saving" device that allows us to make "efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences." ("Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox") . Therefore, is it any surprise that many of us look at the characters in the Mahabharata also through similar, stereotypical lenses? It simplifies things if we view Duryodhana as the jealous usurper, Shakuni as the manipulative uncle, Bhishma as the noble but helpless elder, Arjuna as the hero, Karna as the tragic and righteous hero fighting on the wrong side, and so on. No, it is not quite proper or kosher to include in this group of admirers (and critics) of the Mahabharata those that bring their own neuroses and neo-colonial prejudices!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Markandeya Purana, tr by Bibek Debroy

The Markandeya Purana, translated by Bibek Debroy

s far as Puranas go, the Markandeya Purana is the shortest Puranas. It is nowhere as long as the Skanda Purana (81,000 shlokas) or the Padma Purana (55,000). For more reasons than one, I like the Markandeya Purana a lot. The most obvious one is that it begins with questions about the Mahabharata. Those maddening, unending, unanswerable questions about the Mahabharata that anyone and everyone would have asked - why did the nirguna Janardana assume a human form? Why did Droupadi have to have five husbands? Why did Balarama have to travel to the tirthas to atone for the sin of killing a brahmana? And why did the sons of Droupadi have to die the death they did? Remember that they were killed after the war, in their sleep, by the son of Drona.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Lessons from Mahabharata: Envy – II

n the first part of this two part series focusing on the emotion of Envy, we learnt that despite the popular belief and the main proponent of the emotion in the epic tale, Duryodhan wasn't the only person driven by envy.

Let us now continue with more examples of envy as we meander through other stories and in the process receive our lessons from Mahabharata. While we are at it, let’s also see if there is some common thread connecting them.

Having married Droupadi and having settled in Indraprastha, the Pandvas were once visited by the sage Narada. They all greeted the sage, and after Droupadi left, Narada had a pointed question for the Pandavas. Given Droupadi’s beauty, how were they going to head off the green-headed monster that was envy? To illustrate his point, he told them the story of the two invincible asuras Sunda and Upasunda, who once lived in Kurukshetra. Yes, all roads did seem to lead to Kurukshetra.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Lessons from the Mahabharata - Envy 1

hat Duryodhana was driven by envy is known to all. He is also perhaps the best known example of an envious man in the entire epic. His whole life was one long, never ending, rage against his cousins, the Pandavas, who he thought had the better of everything – whether the palace at Indraprastha, whether a beautiful wife in Droupadi, whether in riches, his own “ordinary prosperity” never pleased him, was never enough. That much is well known. What is also known is that if Duryodhana’s envy was like a forest fire, it was Shakuni, his maternal uncle, that kept that fire burning. And we also know that Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana’s blind father was blind to every single fault of his son, turning a literal and figurative blind eye to his son’s faults.

But what about Gandhari? When Pandu was living the life of forced bachelorhood, in mortal fear of Sage Kimdama’s curse, he turned to his wife Kunti to beget sons. Kunti had Sage Durvasa’s mantra that she used to summon Yama, who begat Yudhishtra. Yudhishtra thus became the eldest Pandava. That is not strictly true, since Karna had been born some time back, but since no one but Kunti knew that secret, and because the poor little baby that was Karna  had been cast away in the river, for all practical purposes it was Yudhishtra who would be considered the eldest Pandava.

Meanwhile Gandhari had also been pregnant, but for inexplicable reasons had not given birth. When she heard news of Yudhishtra’s birth, she flew into a rage. A rage of frustration, anger, and envy. Envy because she knew that the rights of the eldest prince, Yudhishtra, would mean that his claim to the throne of Hasitnapura would be foremost. That fit of rage and envy caused her to strike her belly, and she aborted a lump of flesh. From that aborted lump of flesh were born a hundred Kaurava brothers and one sister. The hundred and first lump became Duhshala, who would go on to marry Jayadratha, and that is another story in itself. Gandhari’s envy, literally and figuratively, gave birth to the Kauravas.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Leader’s Temperament – A Leadership Masterclass from the Mahabharata

et's talk about the role of a CEO and what advice would a board advisor give to an incoming CEO? Yes, this is still about the Mahabharta, but we are going to take a detour before getting there.

To strive to maximize shareholder value, to watch out for market trends and unforeseen macroeconomic headwinds, to hire the best, to not ignore the advice of advisors, to put down indiscipline with a firm hand, to be approachable yet not play favourites, and so on. This is the basic ingredient from which tens of thousands of management books, seminars, articles, and more are churned out each year.

In a modern context, while the use of the word "king" may be anachronistic, the basic import of the the Raj-dharma parva of the Mahabharata retains much of its value and relevance. If you substitute the word "king" with "chief minister" or "prime minister", or with "CEO" or "Managing Director", the advice given to the king then could very well be applied to the leaders of today.

When asked by Yudhishthira to elaborate on the true nature of rajadharma, Bhishma's advice is worth its weight in governance gold. Management gurus make a killing and fortune, but the Mahabharata dispenses this advice for free. In this post, therefore, let's look at the advice imparted by Bhishma on the ideal's king's temperament.
Mahabharata, Volume 5, Gorakhpur Gita Press

Monday, May 13, 2019

Stri Parva and Gandhari's Curse

ow do you curse God, and do it justifiably so? What is the arc of the geometry of rage? Does it rise up into a crescendo and then subside after it has found an outlet? Or does it ebb and flow, crest and trough? How does one react to being cursed? How would God react to such a curse? As curses go, there are many instances in the Puranas of gods being cursed. Indra is perhaps in the unfortunate position of being the recipient of the most curses. Even Vishnu was cursed by Narada to be born as a human. But Gandhari cursing Krishna is possibly one without parallel. Dharma was cursed, and was born as Vidura. The Vasus were cursed and had to be born as the sons of Ganga. But a god being cursed? Not only did Gandhari curse Krishna, she cursed his entire tribe, the race of the Yadavas. In it, there are several lessons to be learned.
Mahabharata, Volume 5, Gorakhpur Gita Press